Review: Redemption at the hands of Tommy Lee Jones

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By Kelly LeVan

Two men sit together beside their horses, the West Texas sun smoldering in their cowboy hats. One asks the other to make sure his body, if he dies, finds its way home to Mexico, to his wife and children. “I’ll die first. I’m older than you,” his friend responds, but nevertheless, a promise is made.

Much too soon, it is also kept.

“The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada,” screening this week at UNM-LA, Pete Perkins (Tommy Lee Jones) makes a long, reckless and probably insane journey to Jimenez, Mexico, to deliver his friend Melquiades Estrada’s body to his family.

He crosses treacherous ridges and navigates across miles of sprawling, nearly uninhabited desert plateaus, a difficult enough journey for any man on horseback, let alone one toting the dead body of his friend – and the angry, violent, defiantly alive body of the man who killed him.

For several reasons, the man who murdered Estrada was never charged with the murder. But even if he had been, it’s likely police and border patrol officers wouldn’t approve of Perkins doling out punishment in the Chihuahuan Desert.

They’re after him, ready to rescue the killer and arrest the good friend who couldn’t let Estrada’s final resting place overlook an American football field.

“The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada” won two awards at its premiere at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival: The Best Actor award went to Jones, who also directed the film, and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga took Best Screenplay. Jones went on to win the Grand Prix award at the Flanders International Film Festival, and the cast earned the Bronze Wrangler at the Western Heritage Awards the following year.

I agree with the world: This is a truly provocative film dealing with not only deep, in-your-gut emotions but, as Jones writes in his director’s statement, the “psychological, spiritual and social implications of having an international border running through the middle of a culture.”

I love the settings, too – the mobile home park where Lou Ann Norton (January Jones) passes her lonely, hot, meaningless afternoons; the bright, cheap diner where Rachel (Melissa Leo) waits tables and arranges hasty dates while her husband watches from the kitchen; and the wide, yawning sierras full of rattlesnakes and desperate people on both sides of the law.

“The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada” engaged me on every level, and I’m so glad I watched it. It was both serious and hugely entertaining – a rare combination.

The movie will screen at 7 p.m. in the Lecture Hall at the UNM-LA Student Center. Admission is $5 or $3 with UNM-LA ID.

Los Alamos Film Society and UNM-LA collaborate to present films with original points of view that did not receive wide theatrical distribution. Los Alamos Film Society is a program of the Los Alamos Arts Council.

My score: Five out of five kernels.